At first, Brandt believed Ethan would keep his promise.
Even after the church collapsed and burned down to rubble, he believed.
Even after they came to Location Shakespeare and waited for Ethan until sunrise, only to walk away alone, he believed.
And even after they returned to the States and resumed normal work, trying to keep face like nothing had happened, each of them trying to move around the collapse within their hearts, he believed.
It was only around the six-month mark that his hope began to fail.
Life went on, as life is wont to do. Jane was reassigned to a new team. She didn't hate them, but Brandt could sense her constant throb of loss, though she hid it well. Sometimes he would see her when she returned from a new assignment. She would come in to the men's locker room when she knew it was empty and he was inside in the shower. He didn't sing anymore. Somehow, she still knew his schedule, and he would emerge from the steam to find her sitting on the bench, nursing a drink, and he could see in her eyes and stance that no matter how well her new team worked, their camaraderie hurt more than it helped.
Benji was almost worse. He'd gone back to desk work, so Brandt saw him more often. He'd retreated into himself in a way that Brandt would never believed he could. Though he still cracked jokes and played Halo when he thought no one was looking, all his attempts at levity seemed crippled somehow. Dark circles took up constant residence under his eyes.
Brandt had gone back to desk work too. Head assistant to the Secretary. The job was good, interesting. But he never stopped missing the thrill of the field, though he knew that he wasn't ready to go back. Maybe he never would be.
He'd thought that nothing could hurt more than Croatia. He'd been wrong. Somehow this hurt more, knowing that Ethan was, in all likelihood, gone for real this time.
They'd lingered in London for a week after. They returned to the sewers through which they'd entered, evading the EMS and the British police, seeking any clue, any hope, of Ethan's escape. They found nothing, and gradually the information was gathered by local police. Benji hacked into their system and learned that only two bodies had been retrieved from the rubble, both crushed beyond identification. The explosion was still under investigation, but London police suspected arson. It had originated directly under the church, within the Catacombs.
It didn't sit well with Brandt. There was more going on here than they knew about, of that he was sure. But he couldn't see it. For once, his flexible mind could not draw the picture for him, offer solutions, ideas, answers. He was too tired. His grief ran too deep.
At first, for a few dark weeks, he hated Ethan. He hated Ethan, and he hated himself. The four of them had compromised themselves through their love for one another. What made them strong and capable in the field was now breaking them. They should never have stayed together as a team. The job worked like this. One of them was bound to bite it sooner or later. They should have known better than to think that this team, this small, dysfunctional family, could ever last.
He once said so to Jane. They were at a bar on a Saturday night, anchored to a table, throwing back bourbon like water. They could both put away their liquor. It had been three months since London with no developments, and they each needed to turn their emotions off for a little while. When Brandt muttered his dark feeling aloud, Jane grabbed his chin and stared him hard in the eyes.
"Don't you ever think that, William Brandt," she snarled. "You take it where you can. Doing so otherwise is cowardice." Then she got up and left, leaving him to puzzle out her words. It wasn't till the next morning, when he woke up hungover and salt-cheeked in his apartment, that he understood.
Some things transcend the job and its circumstances. Sometimes love, and looking after one another, are the mission. Ethan had always believed that. He had acted on it many times. It was part of why he was so good at what he did. Even though he'd lost a lot of people in his life, he'd loved as fiercely every time, no matter what could happen.
Brandt had never had that kind of courage until Ethan, Jane, and Benji came along. And he was fairly certain that he never would again.
So he clung to Jane and Benji, and they clung back. The three of them were still incredibly close, somehow even closer together in their grief.
Four months after London, Benji and Brandt moved to a new apartment together. It was biking distance from Langely, and they cooked spaghetti and played MarioKart and kept a small herb garden on the windowsill. Jane's apartment was five minutes away, so at least four or five times a week they would make dinner together. Jane crashed on the couch on weekends frequently. They weren't healing. They wouldn't for a while. But they eased each others' grief.
By six months, the breathtaking pain that had settled in Brandt's solar plexus was beginning to evolve. It was now less of a fragility and more of a calcified depression. Reality was finally setting in, the stages of grief shifting along. Slowly, each of them began to fully understand life without Ethan.
Brandt nearly quit. The only reason he finally didn't was because he knew that the only thing keeping him from completely spiraling was the routine engagement of the job, and the weird community that came along with it. So he bit down hard, lowered his head, and worked.
And life went on.
At the seven month mark, Brandt had a panic attack in the middle of the workday.
He'd gotten them as a kid. Clint was always good with him when they happened; he knew exactly what to do. They'd tapered off in his late twenties, flared briefly after Croatia, then stopped. When his chest started to tighten for no apparent reason as he sat at his desk on a Wednesday, he thought at first that he might actually be having a heart attack this time. He managed to get to the locker room and collapsed against the wall, the cold metal doors cooling his shoulder blades, as the panic attack worked itself out. He was so drained and shaken after that he called Benji and asked if he could take him home. They spent the rest of the day watching M.A.S.H. and trying not to think about it.
Even from early on, they were all having nightmares. Brandt would wake up in a cold sweat, the image of Ethan with his throat cut and the ceiling collapsing on him. Sometimes he would go out into the kitchen to find Benji sipping tea, looking small and exhausted. Sometimes Jane would join them after a really bad one.
And sometimes, Brandt wondered how long this would last. They were reaching the point of acceptance. But there is an impossibly wide gulf between acceptance and healing. They could not heal. And Brandt was getting increasingly concerned that they never would. That this would be the one that, after everything, finally broke him.
And then, at eight months, Brandt went out to check the mail.
It was late afternoon on a Sunday in October. The air was getting cold and smelled like dead leaves. Brandt padded in socked feet down the apartment stairwell to his mailbox and retrieved a small stack of envelopes. Without looking at them, he mounted the stairs and went back inside.
Jane sat in sweatpants at the small kitchen bar, working on some post-mission writeups. Benji was sprawled on the couch, typing intently on his computer.
Brandt raised an eyebrow at him. "You coding?"
Benji didn't look up. "Minecraft."
Jane snorted. "What a nerd."
"It's relaxing!" Benji protested.
Brandt smiled softly and went to sit on the far couch near the TV. He carded through the envelopes. Mostly bills, a letter from Clint and his cousin. Something at the bottom of the stack caught his eye. He pulled it out and inspected it.
It was a simple business envelope. No return address was printed, which was normal enough, but it was the address that intrigued him. It was made out to him, Benji and Jane.
Brandt frowned in confusion. He touched the letter carefully, but the contents felt flat and non-threatening. He gently tore it open and removed its contents: a single small piece of paper, folded lengthwise.
Brandt unfolded it and read it.
And then, with a wild, violent joy, he threw back his head and laughed.
Benji and Jane crowded around him, asking frantically what it was. Brandt stopped laughing and began to cry softly as he held up the paper.
Written in the center, in familiar scrawl, was Sedona.
"You sure you're going to be okay?"
Ethan half-turned from where he stood.
A woman leaned against the passenger side window. She was tall and muscular, with olive skin and black hair, and she radiated a fierce anticipation.
Ethan approached her and gently touched her bicep. "I'll be fine," he said. "Really."
She nodded. "You ready to get home?"
Ethan sighed. "You have no idea."
With a soft smile, she replied, "No, I think I might."
Ethan grinned. "Of course." He shifted some weight off his foot. "Elena, I don't know how to thank you for everything."
Of all the people he'd expected to wake up to after a room collapsed on him in the London Catacombs, Elena Williams was near the bottom of the list. When Ethan first blinked himself awake and saw the familiar figure next to him, his first thought was, Oh fuck, I'm dead.
He tried to say it aloud, too, and promptly realized he was intubated and couldn't speak. It was only the pain radiating throughout his body, and the explanation Elena gave once she realized he was conscious, that the truth began to grow clear. She had not, in fact, died on the job, but had taken a particularly dangerous deep cover mission within the Syndicate after one of their operatives kidnapped her husband, a gifted biochemical engineer. Elena had taken the job in an attempt to get him back. The only way to be assimilated was for her to be declared dead within the agency. Her cover was so complete that not even her children could know she was alive. And it turned out, the operatives she had been tracking and working with had been linked to Fitzpatrick. She'd followed him to London, and set off a controlled explosion in the Catacombs to immobilize him. When she sifted through the rubble, she'd found him, still breathing. The area above the chamber they'd been in was solid rock, so all that fell during the explosion was the brick lining. It had made a lot of noise and shaken out hundreds of years of dust, and did just enough damage to pin down Fitzpatrick. Elena took him prisoner and moved him to a safehouse outside of Syndicate control.
She'd also found Ethan, barely alive.
Knowing who he was, she took him back to her safehouse in London. She couldn't break cover by contacting the IMF or his team, and leaving him in a public hospital opened him up to further Syndicate attacks. The safehouse medical resources were spartan, but enough to keep Ethan alive.
Still, he was comatose for seven months. Elena spared him no details. Cracked skull, severely dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, shallowly sliced throat, shattered tibia, and of course his foot. That turned out to be the worst. Fitzpatrick fractured three of his metatarsals and separated two of his cuneiform bones. Elena, with the resources she had, was able to do little more than set what she could and stitch up the wounds. As she listed his injuries, Ethan realized with a sober pit in his stomach that this was the absolute closest he had come to dying and staying dead.
It took him a month to gain the strength to walk more than a few feet. His foot had healed wrong, and his tibia, while set well, still twinged from injury and atrophy. Elena was still working with the Syndicate, so she was able to do little more than bring him food and supplies a few times a week. Fitzpatrick she kept locked in a small room in a straitjacket. Ethan had spared her no details either about what he had done to her sons. Though Elena needed no added motivation to extract information from him in order to locate her husband, Ethan was pretty sure the drive of vengeance helped keep her going.
Slowly, Ethan gained strength. He worked his foot and leg and shoulder with physical therapy exercises he Googled. He clung to the walls for support. He'd lost a lot of muscle mass, and the effort exhausted him quickly. He spent the rest of his time sleeping, researching, and thinking about his team.
He wanted desperately to let them know he was alive, but he dared not break Elena's cover in any way, not even with a letter. So he hacked into the IMF, local traffic cams, CCTV, and looked for them. He needed to know they were doing okay, that they were carrying on without him. He learned that Benji and Brandt moved in together a stone's throw from Jane's apartment, and that the three of them still spent a lot of time together. The first time he was the three of them all at once, in an elevator cam going up into Langley, something unknotted in his lungs. They were okay. They had all made it back.
Finally, eight months since London, Elena found her husband and broke him out of the Syndicate. She brought him to the safe house so he could recover, and Ethan wrote a one-word letter to his team, hoping they would understand its full significance.
Two weeks later, they were on an IMF jet out of London, bound for D.C.
And now they were here, Elena seeing him off at Dulles. She and her husband were bound for the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where their sons had been set up in a proper safehouse and school system, courtesy, apparently, of Jane Carter. Elena had heard it through the grapevine –something about Jane performing an armbar on the head of Extraagency Affairs until he signed the papers. She and the rest of the team checked up on the boys regularly until they were settled in fully. At hearing that, Ethan had warmed with gratitude and pride.
Elena grasped Ethan's hand where it rested on her arm. "You don't need to thank me, Ethan," she said, softly but sincerely. "If anything, I'm glad I could repay you and your team for looking after my children. I never meant for them to get involved in all of this."
"That's how family is sometimes," Ethan murmured. "Getting involved. I'm glad we could help."
Elena tugged on his hand and pulled him in for a hug. She avoided his shoulder, also still not fully healed. "Thank you, Ethan," she whispered in his ear. "We helped each other. Now go home, to your family."
They drove off into the gathering twilight, leaving Ethan standing on the curb with little more than the clothes on his back. But he wasn't afraid or uncertain. A deep, relieved peace washed over him, and he breathed in the air of his home city, relishing in it.
He hailed a cab, and gave an address. Not long after Ethan was being dropped again at a familiar street. He had just enough cash to pay the fee, and then the cab drove off too, leaving him alone.
In front of a very familiar apartment. This was his first time seeing it in person, but he'd viewed it countless times on CCTV. It was Benji and Brandt's new place, and Ethan quite liked it, all the more so because the door into the main stairwell was unlocked.
He knew the number. He limped up the stairs slowly, mindful of his foot and leg, leaning hard on the banister.
Then he was there. He leaned his ear against the door, both catching his breath and listening. He could hear voices inside, and it didn't take long to pick out all three of them. A current of desperate excitement charged Ethan down to his bones. He straightened, backed up, and knocked their secret knock.
All conversation within immediately ceased.
The door cracked open. Blue eyes peered out.
For a moment Ethan couldn't breathe. "Brandt–"
From inside came the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. Ethan froze. Brandt's face was jet white and cut from stone.
"It's not my job to protect her," Brandt said, monotone. "Whose is it?"
Ethan was so exhausted and excited all at once that it took him a few seconds to
realize was Brandt was talking about.
"Mine," he replied, his voice hoarse. "It's my job to protect her. Just like I told you on that pier in Seattle, just after Cobalt."
For a single, endless second, Brandt didn't move.
Then a clattering thump came as the gun was dropped, and the door was thrown open, light and scent and familiarity pouring out, Jane and Benji crying out and rushing toward him, and Brandt grinning, tearing up, saying, "You absolute son of a bitch."
And then they were embracing him, somehow avoiding his injuries, hugging him all at once and flooding him with love and all the smells of what had come before all of this mess. Benji was crying, Jane and Brandt were laughing and crying, and Ethan found himself crying too as he was swept up in the head-spinning joy of being free, safe, home.
In a little while, he would sit them down, and tell them everything that had happened. He would listen as they filled him in on what had transpired in his absence. They would return to their equilibrium, their balance between one another, four parts now making a whole once again.
But for now, Ethan was happy–really, fully happy– to just stand here with his team. The past didn't matter, and they had nothing to fear from the future. They were here now, together, and that was all that mattered.
Eventually, his foot and leg failed. Brandt slung his good arm over his shoulder, and Benji and Jane supported him as they led him inside the apartment.
And for the first time in far too long, Ethan leaned into his family, reveling in their love and warmth, as they crossed through the doorway and carried him home.
Hey guys. I cannot thank you enough for seeing this fic through to the end. Your support and desire for more has kept me writing. This fic spans nearly four years, from my last days in high school to over halfway through college. It sat dormant or active through ups, downs, good times and bad times, transitions and changes and a lot of personal growth. This fic is a hot mess, but I love it and I'm proud of it and I hope you all have enjoyed reading it. Thank you all so much for reading.
Happy New Year, everyone. Until next time!